Annihilation is the latest project from writer-turned-director Alex Garland, responsible for such films as Sunshine and Ex Machina. It’s safe to say that Garland has a real knack for science fiction – real science fiction, the kind with weird ideas, interesting visuals and plots that aren’t driven by large-scale action sequences. In many ways, Annihilation is one of the best studio sci-fi films in recent memory, right up there with Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. It is an intensely cerebral and visually breathtaking experience that asks much from the audience but delivers something satisfying and different for those willing to take the plunge.
Ideas and Execution
The main concept behind Annihilation is an ecological zone known as Area X, a section of land surrounded by a mysterious barrier known as ‘The Shimmer’, which has been spreading over the course of several years. While those who study it are baffled, one thing is sure; anything that goes in does not come back out. The execution of this, from a visual standpoint, is nothing short of spectacular, with every aspect of Area X resembling something from an entirely different world. Sometimes it feels as if we’re seeing someone’s interpretation of both Heaven and Hell, combined into an unsettling realm of both chaos and serenity. The mental and physical toll this takes on the characters is palpable throughout, though some tension is removed as the opening moments of the film focus on Lena being interviewed after her experience inside, deflating some of the mystery before it could even be introduced.
Here’s where Annihilation falters a bit, for much of the same reason that most films in the sci-fi genre do. Most of the main cast is comprised of fairly stock characters whose motivations and backgrounds are quickly explained towards the beginning, though it didn’t feel like the story utilized their differences in any meaningful way. Despite this, the acting here is generally quite good, notably the performances of Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Full disclosure, I haven’t read the book, but after doing a bit of research it seems there were only four main characters instead of five. Cutting out one or two of the crew members for this adaptation and placing more emphasis on the remaining three would not require any major plot sacrifice and would help create more depth for those that remained. Some of these minor characters serve as typical sci-fi horror “monster bait”, though it never feels as gimmicky or pointless as some sci-fi slashers I’ve seen recently such as Life or The Cloverfield Paradox. On top of that, the brief sequences of violence and horror in this film are extremely disturbing – so much so that I fear it may put off more casual audiences before even reaching the halfway point. It’s been a while since I felt so much dread and tension while watching a film, especially when these scenes often end in such disturbing and nightmarish visuals. Garland clearly has a knack for making films that keep the viewer on edge throughout. This aforementioned gore is used sparingly, but when it does, the impact is much more effective.
Considering Alex Garland produced Ex Machina for just $15 million, I had no doubt that he would pull off something visually incredible with a significantly higher budget, and he certainly has. The visuals of this film serve as the backbone of the story, with large swaths of the story being expressed with no dialogue. It seems like Garland is better at writing these sequences than traditional dialogue, which occasionally comes off as a bit clunky and unnatural. The delivery is good enough that it never became horribly distracting, but undeniably made certain moments feel cheesier than intended. The script relies more heavily on abstract concepts than most comparable films, and as a result, the ultimate goal of this story seems more tied to having the audience interpret these ideas in their own ways, rather than relying on a straightforward protagonist to experience everything in laid out and clear ways. The plot is by no means completely open to interpretation; the events that play out do follow a (mostly) comprehensive path, just with a very different system of delivery. Outside of just visuals, however, Garland makes incredibly strong usage of sound – not only with the excellent musical score but also through some speaker-shattering audio that accompanies the climax, creating something so legitimately overwhelming and surreal that seeing this in a theater is a necessity to get the full experience.
Despite some minor faults in character development and clunky dialogue, Annihilation provides a ferociously original and genre-bending thriller that grips its viewers with interesting themes, a fascinating setting and a sense of tension that is elevated to enormous heights during the films more extreme sequences. Even after only seeing it once I feel as though this film is already starting to grow on me because of how unique it is. The fantastical meets the surreal, which in turn meets the nightmarish and downright horrifying. The same elements that make it so memorable, however, are also the ones that I feel keep it from being accessible to most mainstream audiences. This is an experience largely intended for genre fans alone, but those who can handle it will likely find an engaging and rewarding experience
(Feature photo retrieved from theatlantic.com)